27, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 12
I E W P O I N T
New Old Thing
Indian-Americans are reaching out to their roots to create a unique culture
By NISID HAJARI
The great question of the immigrant experience in America is figuring
out when one has arrived. Has a community "made it" after producing its
first Member of Congress? Its first sitcom star? Its first big-bucks ceo?
South Asians in the U.S. seem to have stumbled upon a simpler litmus test:
the Net dominates America, and Indians dominate the Net. ("The definitive
smell of a Silicon Valley start-up was of curry," may be the most quoted
line from Michael Lewis' book about the Valley, The New New Thing.) Therefore,
Indians must now rule the U.S. The definitive smell of the American melting
pot must be of curry, no?
Not exactly. Starry-eyed profiles of high-tech billionaires like venture
capitalist Vinod Khosla and Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia grant the
South Asian community a profile that far exceeds its numbers--just over
a million, in a U.S. population of more than 270 million. The ranks of
software engineers and others emigrating to America are hardly vast enough
to color the U.S. brown.
What they have begun to Indianize, however, is the Indian-American community.
Those of us whose mothers and fathers came to the States in the 1960s
are saddled with nearly every cultural hang-up common to second-generation
immigrants. Given visa restrictions, our parents often filled the professional
roles that now paint South Asians as a model minority: as doctors, lawyers,
engineers. Many of these landed not in giant metropolises, but in smaller,
mostly white suburbs. The town outside Seattle where I was raised boasted
two other Desi, or Indian, families. Driving two hours to visit another
Gujarati household for dinner was not unusual; neither was hiking over
the border to Canada to buy spices. Growing up was a familiar exercise
in assimilation: India was only a place to be visited--and then reluctantly--every
few years. A question of identity was, "Why don't you wear a turban?"
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Indian-Americans who grew up in larger cities, of course, enjoyed a different
experience--one made easier in some ways by the makings of a real community.
The boom in Indo-chic has now brought that experience to a world beyond
the classic immigrant ghetto. This may sound like a small thing, but it's
not. Indian-American teenagers can now watch Hindi movies on cable and
in theaters, buy Hindi remix music from Bombay and London, dress in clothes
that cross American streetwear with South Asian influences. Such changes
offer no more and no less than validation--that grail sought by all immigrant
communities, and something more often begged from the culture of the adopted
country than imported from the one left behind.
edition's table of contents
That doesn't mean that us abcds (American-born Confused Desis) are necessarily
becoming more Indian. No matter how many local newspapers run stories
about Indian-American boys who prefer arranged marriages to village girls,
such stunts will remain just that--colorful, easily digestible anecdotes
that say far more about America's continuing fascination with Indian stereotypes
than about the lives of Indian-Americans. Our connections to the subcontinent
are drawn more ephemerally, via e-mail and satellite TV and the bulked-up
cultural interchange that now describes the world at large. This is not,
or not only, a question of slavishly following the politics of identity
that has bloomed in the U.S. in recent years. Ideally, what we're seeing
is not a generation finding its roots in the ancient soil of the subcontinent.
Instead what may be growing is an ease with multiple roots--and a more
nuanced understanding of modern Indianness, with all the variety and contradiction
and friction that comes with a culture undergoing such radical changes.
All of this, of course, is precisely what's not being promoted in the
current craze for all things Indian. Too often the evidence produced to
attest to such a boom is of fleeting import: a bindi on Madonna's forehead,
a cup of Starbuck's chai, a proliferation of Ayurvedic cures. None of
these dislodges the cartoonish image of India that lingers in the minds
of Americans; none proves that American culture has somehow been "Indianized."
Perhaps that's too much to ask. The world's most ravenous culture machine
has long scoured the globe for new influences to appropriate and refashion
and send back out to international markets. It has done so before with
India (remember Nehru jackets?). No doubt it will do so again.
But keep in mind: the same logic once convinced cultural ideologues in
India that American pop culture could not be defied, that Coca-Colonization
would be inevitable unless barriers were raised. Instead, in India, too,
foreign influences have been absorbed and reprocessed, transformed into
hybrid strains that are as local in their own way as the most turgid Bollywood
thriller. South Asians in Britain have produced similar fusions, and Indian-Americans
have begun to do so as well. Much of this, of course, remains consigned
to the margins of downtown clubs and ethnic film festivals. But that's
where the audience for a truly Indian-American culture will linger long
after some other group has moved to center stage in America's fickle consciousness.
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